The Supreme Court has done well to put an end to actor Sanjay Dutt’s campaign to enter the Lok Sabha. The court on Tuesday refused to suspend his conviction and sentencing in a criminal case. The question uppermost in the minds of citizens now is: Can there be a judicial cleansing of politics? The answer is a qualified yes.
The facts of the case are simple. Dutt was involved in the Mumbai blasts case of 1993 and was convicted under the Arms Act, 1959 and sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment. This, in turn, disqualified him [under Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act,1951] from being chosen a member of Parliament. The court merely upheld this position. The judgement is important as there is a long list of criminals who have attracted disqualification under Section 8(3) of the Act; if the court had decided otherwise, these criminals would have been free to enter Parliament.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Here, political will is paramount. The fate of two states with similar political processes and outcomes, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is instructive in this respect. Ironically, Bihar, a state that led the wave of criminalization of politics, is now showing the way out. The Nitish Kumar government has fast-tracked the trials of criminals such as Mohammad Shahabuddin, Anand Mohan and Pappu Yadav, who till the other day were playing havoc with politics in Bihar. In contrast, UP has droves of criminals who remain undeterred and are at the commanding heights of politics in the state. The Maywati government has done nothing to prevent further criminalization of politics.
Since the late 1970s, the judiciary has stepped in where the executive has failed. Can the courts step in a similar fashion to ensure a level playing field in politics without supplanting the political process? This is a difficult terrain for the courts to traverse. Constitutionally, the judiciary has a very limited mandate.
Due to the peculiar historical and legal circumstances prevailing in India, this role has been expanded greatly. Extending it in the political domain is, however, fraught with unpredictable consequences. Disciplining the bureaucracy and other organs of the state that do not face political accountability is one matter, but disciplining politicians is an altogether different proposition.
What the apex court can do is pass binding orders on governments to create special fast-track courts to try criminals with political ambitions. It can set up a court-appointed committee that would monitor the progress of such cases and efforts and upbraid erring chief ministers. This way it would not cross constitutional red lines but would have gone a long way in cleaning India’s messy political stables.
Is there a judicial fix to the criminalization of politics? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org